The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition

Excerpted from a story by THOMAS PETZINGER JR.
(Wall Street Journal, February 20, 1998, p. B1)

SOMEBODY HAD to play the fool, and David Isenberg figured it might as well be him.

It was April Fool's Day in 1996. A top scientific researcher at AT&T, he had put together an internal conference on a topic so heretical, so ridiculous, that he chaired the event wearing a jester's outfit, with tassels, bells and puffy shorts.
His subject: "What If Minutes Were Free?"

Two years later, with a new kind of network threatening the hegemony of the phone system, Dr. Isenberg's question is decidedly less outlandish. Alas for AT&T, the very scientist who sounded the warning is now on the outside assisting the attack.

Growing up in Woods Hole, Mass., Dr. Isenberg worshipped the émigré biologist Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, a Nobel laureate and friend of his family. "If you're going to fish," the old scientist told him, "use a big hook." . . .

Picture of 
David Isenberg by Elliot Banfield
Used with permission of Elliot Banfield

. . . Some years ago Dr. Isenberg could see that the intelligent network  . . . operated on severely limiting protocols, a presumption of scarcity and a belief that voice was practically everything. Outside the phone system . . . a phenomenon called the Internet [was] beginning . . .

SO DR. ISENBERG became the Tom Paine of AT&T, publishing a newsletter called "No Surpr!ses" to warn company officials of lurking commercial and technological threats. He ran an internal lecture series called "Not Your Usual Research Seminar," bringing in New Wave economists and futurists. At his suggestion AT&T christened his office the Opportunity Discovery Department, called "odd" for short. He hung a foot-long shark hook as a reminder of his mentor's admonition to fish for big ones.

Then, last summer, Dr. Isenberg was asked to comment on an industry paper extolling the future of the traditional phone network. He was aghast at the display of old-world thinking. In his view the phone system was like a drinking straw alongside the fat pipelines of the new network, a vast and loose complex of cable, fiber, satellite and technologies no one had yet imagined. The new network was pure bandwidth, nothing but infrastructure, over which data could find their way.

The old intelligent . . . was built for dumb endpoints called phones. The new network could be cheap and stupid because it was being built for smart endpoints called computers.

That was it! The future, he realized, belonged to "the stupid network."

In a weekend burst of energy he wrote a 4,000-word essay called "Rise of the Stupid Network," which he selectively circulated inside AT&T and posted (with the company's blessing) on a private Internet site of the Global Business Network. "It was like a glass of cold water in the face," recalls Tom Evslin, then president of AT&T's WorldNet Service. Some were already questioning the future of the intelligent network, but no one had so starkly suggested such a business model.

"He really crystallized the debate," says Mr. Evslin, who now runs an Internet phone company (in which AT&T is an investor). "It was a very significant intellectual event." . . . But to paraphrase the book of Matthew, a prophet is honored everywhere but in his own land. Some AT&T people said the paper went too far in attacking the company's foundations. Others thought in-your-face language like "stupid network" was indecorous. Friends joked he was a marked man.

. . . [Then] Dr. Isenberg was invited to join a panel of high-powered CEOs addressing "the death of telephony" at a conference sponsored by Forbes Magazine and the futurist George Gilder. AT&T insisted he back out; a spokesman explains that he was of insufficient rank to address the full scope of company policy on the issue.

[Ensuing events made it more attractive for Isenberg to leave AT&T than to stay, so he quit.] . . . Now he's a [pro]sultant, helping companies make smart use of the stupid network -- a system, paradoxically, "based on intelligent end-user devices, intelligent customers, employees whose intelligence is valued as a corporate asset and companies," he says, "that can learn."

Date last modified: 13 Apr 98